Olympic National Park: A Mountain Jungle in the United States

Name: Olympic National Park (United States of America).
Location: in the Olympic Peninsula, in northeastern Washington state.
Extension: 896,235 acres.

Olympic National Park

"Big opportunity to become famous... Washington has a large unknown territory like Africa does". On September 23, 1889, it was published on the newspaper Seattle Press an advertisement under this appealing title. Its director, the young Edmond Meany, had decided to organize an expedition to explore the deep lands of the Olympic Peninsula, and he was searching desperately for adventurers who wanted to recall the deeds of the old pioneers, as well as readers who helped to cover the costs of the adventure.

Pretty soon, it was organized the so-called "Press Exploring Expedition", commanded by J. H. Christie, a hunter who had fought against the Indians and participated in an expedition to the Arctic before. Departing from the mouth of the Elwha river in 1889, the explorers naively thought that, beyond the mountain line that was observable from the coast, there was a wide valley from which they could easily lead to the western coast of the Olympic Peninsula. According to their calculations, the journey would last around 2 months, so that when they arrived to the Pacific beaches, spring would have just started.

The ignorance could have resulted in a tragic end of the journey. The flares that the adventurers took with them to allow the Seattle people to follow their daily progress, were soon abandoned, after checking that the frequency of peaks, cliffs and gorges was practically continuous and the fireworks would only surprise the animals of the forests which surrounded them. Once they run out of food, the fortune of the team would depend on the shooting skills of one of the members, as they were forced to hunt. After 6 months of struggles, and when the city had given up the explorers for missing, the adventurers descended from the mountains to the Quinault Lake.

Once they passed through the Olympic Massif, they came back with a topographic map of the area, photos and samples of plants, animals and rocks. Also, they had baptized more than 50 peaks, lakes and rivers with names crediting the explorers that participated in that adventure.

During the summer of 1890, other expedition, supported by the Oregon Alpine Club and commanded by lieutenant O'Neil, passed through the mountains from the Quinault Lake to the Hood channel. The report that delivered O'Neil in his comeback resulted to be prophetic: "While the slopes that fall from the top of the mountain to the sea are exploitable, the interior area is completely useless for any purpose, however, it would serve admirably as a national park". Nearly 50 years later, on June 29, 1938, president Franklin D. Roosevelt finally passed the Declaration of the Olympic National Park Act.

Olympic Peninsula

Located in the northwestern corner of the United States, in the state of Washington, the Olympic peninsula only connects with the continent by its southern side. The Pacific Ocean, in the west, the Strait of Juan de Fuca, in the north, and a wide channel that separates lands up to Olympia, in southern Tacoma, define this wide space. In the peninsula's heartland is located the Mount Olympus (baptized this way due to Juan de Fuca, Greek sailor who under the Spanish Crown traveled throughout these coasts in 1592), with a height of 7,964 feet. This height is not very surprising but, looking at its proximity with the Pacific Ocean, makes up a weird orography, with massifs emerging in a radical way, overlapped with others parallel to the northern coast of the peninsula.

The described location allows the definition of three big natural formations in the Olympic National Park: the coastline, practically virgin and which covers a total of 50 miles of rugged coast; the forest formations of medium height, more humid in the ocean-oriented sectors; and the zone of high mountains, subjected to the domination of glaciers and permanent snows.

It is important to talk a bit about the climatology in the park. The evaporation that is produced in this sector of the Pacific Ocean is very notable, forming dense clouds which are dragged towards the continent. Olympic acts as a natural barrier for these humid masses, which unload their water content here. This way, the average annual precipitation is closed to 140 inches, whereas the Mount Olympus could register up to 200 inches. These numbers, more normal in tropical countries, makes the Olympic the most humid place in the United States.

A Walk through the Rainforest

The national park contains 4 main access points, without including in these the coastline sector. The most northerly access, which has its starting point in the Pioneer Memorial Museum visitors Center, located in the proximities of Port Angeles, goes to Mills Lake. From there, a road that leads to the Observation Point, a privileged hill where you can contemplate the entire Olympus massif. For the hiking lovers, from the lake emerges a long track that, following the course of the Elwha river, approximates to the grand massif from the east or even the communication with the Quinault Lake, in the southern sector of the park.

The northwestern entry leads to the Soleduck waterfalls, over the river with the same name. Before reaching a series of thermal springs, this itinerary leads to a particular attractive spot: Salmon Cascades. Without being an obstacle of excessive dimensions, roughly 50 feet from one level to the other, this spot allows the visitor to observe the king, coho, steelhead and keta salmon species. Each of these species swims upwards the river in slightly different dates, so the spectacle of the salmons is available from April to October, being the best dates in July and August. Particularly noticeable is the presence of keta salmons that, the more they are in the river, more reddish become their scales. This staining is due to a fungi infection that is formed on the weakened fish and will collaborate with the death of all individuals after reproduction has taken place.

The entry from the west allows entering the park with a vehicle up to the visitors center in Hoh Rain Forest, starting point of the trails which lead to the massif of Mount Olympus. In this sector of the park, the best rainforests, a ghostly formation made up of lichens, mosses, ferns and epiphyte plants which sometimes cover the trees entirely. The main forest species are the white spruce, Douglas pines, red cedar and red maples. Due to the particular climatic conditions, certain individuals of these species have extraordinary proportions, holding the worldwide record. The largest white spruce, for instance, with its 210 feet high, was reached by a lightning bolt which cut its top, leaving the enormous tree with a height of 112 feet, whereas it has been registered individuals of Sitka spruce that surpass the 300-feet height mark and with such dimensions at the base that 12 men are needed to embrace them. In waterlogged areas, authentic peat mosses, grow the red and blue elders, and different species of willows and birch trees. The rainforest presents an amazing exuberance, without being able to distinguish a single piece of land that hasn't been covered by a dense green layer of vegetation. The fallen trunks are rapidly mineralized, and on them grow new plants that struggle to get the sun rays. The traditional separation of the forest in different canopies, makes no sense here, having the sensation of walking through a continuous screen of vegetation.

From the visitors center in Hoh Rain Forest starts a trail specially enabled for blind people, which has been baptized as The Revelation Trail. Such an interesting initiative made through a simple and careful design, which allows to feel the rainforest without having to watch it.

The rainforest is the perfect refuge for the wapiti, a huge deer that frequently surpasses 800 pounds in weight. Its Indian name comes from "white deer", despite the fact that this color only appears in the buttock and upper part of its thigh. Some time ago, the wapiti was very abundant in sectors of medium high mountains across the entire continent. Now, its presence is limited to a bunch of national parks, being Olympic the park that contains the largest population.

Ice Mountains

The heart of the park is occupied by the massif of Olympus, with three different peaks to which we have to add the Mount Tom and Mount Mathias. Between these two mounts, there are 5 different glaciers which are, mentioned from west to east, the White, Blue, Humes, Hoh and Hubert. To sum up, an ice cap almost uninterrupted which covers a surface of more than 6 square miles.

The high mountain has its own inhabitants, containing specimens such as the mountain goat and the marmot. The former one, can reach 250 pounds and it presents a white layer of fur, with two types of bristles: some are very short, thin and curly, whereas others are long, thick and stiff. These ones allow the formation of a warm air sack very useful when temperatures are below 30 or 20 degrees. Regarding the marmot, it prefers a sweet winter nap rather than fighting against the harsh winter conditions. Illustrating this biological aspect, in brochures that are given by the administration of the park to visitors, it appears the following caption: "Beneath you and in galleries situated 3 feet in depth or more, the marmots in Olympic are wintering".

Olympic, Observer of the Pacific

Forests that fall into the ocean, unattached islands covered by spruces, vertiginous cliffs, beaches of grey sand that seem to have no end... The Olympic coastline uncovers the dramatic combat between the earth and the ocean, without groups of islands or reefs that could stop the water impulses. During the winter season, and over westerly winds, it's quite often to see waves of 20 feet high breaking against the rocky walls, eroding cliffs and flooding beaches.

The wave pounding during thunderstorms provokes the salinization of the first line of forests, found in the interior part of the beaches. The trees die and form isolated copses of naked trunks which gradually will be falling onto the ground, forming authentic wooden walls. In occasions, the dead trees will be dragged by the ocean and, converted by the tides into demolishing stylets that collaborate in the collapse of the cliffs.

The park covers a narrow strip of coastline, separated from the main core of the mountains, of 50 miles in length. Throughout this coastline, several Indian Reserves are found (Hoh, Quileute, Ozette and Makah) situated in the mouths of the large rivers. It is evident that the salmon is the main income source for these tribes, which are authorized to use fishing nets and to have several rudimentary fish processing facilities.

The coastal forests of the United States, particularly those of grey sequoias, have been heavily subjected to an intense exploitation, which makes exceptional the presence of untouched masses, up to this date. It is said that the president Franklin D. Roosevelt was under tremendous pressure from some sectors of the U.S Forest Services, which argued that the declaration of the zone as protected area would be, by any means, completely unprofitable. However, the president ignored these productive pleads and he chose the option of converting the area into a protected national park. Nowadays, more than 2 million annual visitors have come to do justice to Roosevelt's claim and, probably without knowing it, they all owe him a huge debt of gratitude.

Source: U.S National Park Services

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